The Washington DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said in a press release this week that the caramel color used in dark soft drinks contains cancer-causing ingredients. They claim it should be banned by the FDA. The story gained widespread media attention on every network – CBS, ABC and MSNBC, and sparked a firestorm of controversy as consumers went into a panic mode, health crusaders went into preach mode and the soda industry went into defense mode. I’m no fan of soda, but there are a few things very wrong with this picture…
I was a reader of the CSPI’s Nutrition Action newsletter for many years, going back as far as the early 1990’s. I always realized that this “consumer advocacy group” was essentially just the “food police.” Nevertheless, I was actually a fan for a long time and found a lot of their articles helpful and informative.
The reason I let my subscription lapse and never renewed was because I got tired of the alarmist and sensationalist journalism.
What really pushed me over the edge was the CSPI’s insistence that the solution to our health and obesity crisis is to sue the big bad corporations and have the government ban everything that contributes to the problem.
The attack on colas is the latest in the CSPI’s long history of petitioning the government for intervention. In a February 16th press release, the CSPI said:
“The “caramel coloring” used in Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other foods is contaminated with two cancer-causing chemicals and should be banned. In contrast to the caramel one might make at home by melting sugar in a saucepan, the artificial brown coloring in colas and some other products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures. Chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole(2 MEI) and 4 methylimidazole (4-MEI), which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.”
Naturally the soda industry immediately fired back. Coca-Cola said:
“CSPI’s statement irresponsibly insinuates that the caramel used in our beverages is unsafe and maliciously raises cancer concerns among consumers. This does a disservice to the very public for which CSPI purports to serve. In fact, studies show that the caramel we use does not cause cancer. Further, the caramel we use does not contain the 2-MEI alleged by CSPI.”
The American Beverage Association also responded on their website:
Their latest attempt at “science-by-press-release” tried to whip up a scare that caramel coloring is harmful to consumers via a byproduct called 4-MEI. First, 4-MEI is virtually ubiquitous. It’s found in a wide variety of foods and beverages, from baked goods and breads to molasses and coffee. It forms during the heating, roasting or cooking process. Caramel color is not a threat to human health even when it contains minute amounts of 4-MEI. Studies show that and FDA has agreed by classifying caramel color as generally recognized as safe. Even the National Toxicology Program, the very group CSPI tries to cite in making its case, has not classified 4-MEI as a cancer causing agent, a fact which actually throws cold water all over the activists’ zealotry…
“These baseless and reckless attacks are beyond getting old. It’s to the point that the public doesn’t know what health news to believe thanks to the sensational “study of the day” that promises to doom us all.”
When I see these types of stories, the first thing I typically do is calmly ignore the news media and industry reports completely and look up the primary research on which the concerns are based. Here are the actual studies:
I’m no toxicologist, so I really don’t know how to interpret the relevance of these studies in the context of soda consumption by humans (these are not studies about soda). If I did, I bet I could conclude the same thing that a lot of other scare stories were based on: A) it’s NOT relevant at all, B) it’s a correlation only, with no proof of cause and effect or C) If you feed a bunch of rats the equivalent of 1000 diet sodas a day, some of them get cancer.
No kidding. The basic premise of toxicology is, “it’s the dose that makes the poison.” In many of these rodent studies, the animals are given abuse doses that humans could never match pound for pound. The fact is, if you eat or drink enough of almost anything it can be toxic.
Before you start thinking I’m am apologist for the junk food and soft drink industry, let me say again that I’m no fan of soda. Regular soda is without question, one of the major contributors to the obesity crisis today and I’ve always advised my clients and readers to avoid liquid calories – especially soda. Diet soda saves you the calories, but there’s nothing healthy or nutritious about it. I also don’t doubt that if you drank a 12-pack of diet soda a day for a long time, bad stuff could happen to your body.
You won’t find soda in my house or refrigerator. Ever. I drink mostly water, tea and coffee. But occasionally I do have a diet soda. There, I said it. In fact, I had a Diet Cherry Coke last week. I liked it too. I drink wine a couple times a month as well. I “eat clean” 95% of the time. But for my cheat meals, I eat anything I damn well please. Pizza. Cheesecake. Ice Cream. Anything.
Again, it’s the dose that makes the poison. I don’t eat these kinds of foods often, and I’m as educated as they come about the impact of everything I put in my body.
I know soda is nutritionally void. I know exactly which foods are healthy and nutritious and which ones aren’t. But let me tell you something – I don’t want the food cops or the government telling me what I can and can’t eat or drink. If I want a diet soda or two each week, I’m going to have one.
Banning foods… more government regulation… It won’t work anyway.
What will work? Evidence-based education and personal responsibility.
Learn how to find and read real research instead of depending on these scare stories? Absolutely – that’s education. Take that knowledge and make your own informed decisions instead of letting the food cops and the media dictate for you? Amen – that’s personal responsibility.
Schools and parents teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating from a young age, and parents setting the example? Yes – that’s education. Banning soda from schools? Sounds good at first blush and will probably help, at least a little. But if it were my kids, I’d rather raise them so they could look at the good choice, then look at the bad choice, and make the good choice themselves. That’s personal responsibility.
Calorie counts on restaurant menus? I’m all for it – that’s education – and I think disclosure is a great idea. But I’d rather see the restaurants do it voluntarily, not be forced by law. Sitting at the table with many choices and making the right choice by your own free will… That’s personal responsibility…and that’s